Former Global Fund Board Member and Cambodian human rights activist Mu Sochua pulls no punches. At an event this Monday at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, she began her talk by posing a rhetorical question: "Should we compromise in the fight for justice?" Sochua faces extreme pressure and legal punishment from her government back home for speaking out against the ruling party’s intimidation tactics and corrupt practices.
Cambodia in Crisis: Missed Opportunities and Misdirected Aid
In her talk, Sochua strongly emphasized the dire human rights situation in Cambodia: over 4,000 women in Cambodia die each year from child birth; over half of its children cannot attend or drop out of primary school due to poverty or family illness; 250,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their land in the past six years; only 30 percent of forests remain intact; and just 30 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water.
Sochua also drew attention to the flow of international aid: USAID spent over $53 million on assistance to Cambodia in 2008. That same year, Cambodia received $687 million in foreign aid from donors like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Union - almost half the government's annual budget. However, corruption and lack of accountability means very little of the money reaches its people. Cambodian Women particularly experience the brunt of economic marginalization – as they are highly vulnerable to forced trafficking for sex and labor.
Activists working to reverse the situation face serious challenges: Sochua spoke of the difficulty in translating social justice concepts and vocabulary into Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. There is no Khmer word for accountability and "opposition" is translated as "destroyer." Sochua discussed her campaign to explain the concepts of politics and rights at the grassroots level with village women.
She says any agenda for long-term social change requires political will. In her own commitment to political activism, Sochua points to the need to link human rights and social welfare to politics as an empowerment strategy of empowerment. She uses domestic violence as an example: social welfare alone can help individuals heal, but for real change, domestic violence must become a political issue.
At a recent US Congressional hearing on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Sochua met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and made two requests: first to bring her home safely [as a Member of Parliament stripped of immunity by the ruling party, she is facing significant jail time]; and second, to tie US aid to human rights: "We cannot accept democracy fed to us by the teaspoon, we want full democracy."
Clinton and members of Congress pledged that persecution of any of the three witnesses at the hearing could put US aid at risk. Sochua asked her US supporters to hold their Congresspersons to that commitment.
Listening to Sochua, it was alarming to learn how the Cambodian government is trying to systematically undermine her: in highlighting appearance before the U.S. Congress, Sochua was referred to as a “traitor” by a government spokesperson. The sentence for treason in Cambodia is 20 years to life in prison.
A woman of action, Sochua also shared some useful ways we can advance human rights and democracy in Cambodia: US supporters can write to their Representatives demanding that they follow through with withholding aid if Sochua is arrested upon her return to Cambodia
- Send a letter to Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, to let him know that the world is watching. Contact the Cambodian Consulate in the US for information on how you can send this correspondence.
It reminds us that women's movements have a lot of work ahead in establishing a peaceful and just democracy with respect for women’s human rights. Sochua is a committed human rights defender who is literally putting her life on the line when she says: "You can't go halfway, there is no compromise in the fight against injustice."
Find out about other Bay area events where Mu Sochua is speaking. Listen to a radio interview with Mu Sochua conducted by Preeti Shekar, Pacifica radio producer and member of the Global Fund communications team. Read the UC Berkeley News Center report on Sochua’s talk Fighting Cambodia’s Goliath: Mu Sochua –by UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare
Iris Garcia is part of the Program Team at the Global Fund for Women